8Mezzo

Grade: AA / 90%

 

If La Dolce Vita conveyed a sense of loss and indifference in its protagonist’s life, Federico Fellini’s next feature 8 ½ allows the protagonist to develop an understanding about his life through self-reflection, which allows him to celebrate two of its elements – the past and the present – the way he has built them, and look to the third, the future, with a reassuring certainty and hope.

 

The pivotal symbol in the film is the mysterious towering spaceship structure, a set-piece constructed for the film to be directed by the protagonist, Guido. It stands tall and erect in the middle of nowhere and has been left neglected for months, with production getting delayed because of Guido’s lack of commitment. ‘In my films, everything happens’ – he explains to his confidante Rosetta, and his indulgence for including ‘everything’ has resulted in the construction of the spaceship. But the problem is, he says, he doesn’t know what to do with it all; Rosetta repeats the same advice she’s given him in the past ‘You have free will, but you need to choose’. In the end, Guido makes a choice which frees him from a number of the situations he created for himself, and even though he may have made a few enemies (such as the film’s producer, for example), his step he takes lets him view his life with a fresh perspective, one that develops in him an understanding of ‘how to love’.

 

What I love about Fellini’s films is that the director doesn’t resolve all the complications that arise in the story and keeps certain questions unanswered. This allows us to interpret the film and its protagonist in a different way on each viewing. The second time I watched 8 ½, I began to pity and love Guido for what he is, a narcissist, an escapist, a truant, a child, a seeker. When his wife Luisa is rebuking him for ruining their marriage by having a liaison with his mistress, a married coquette named Carla, Guido escapes to a fantasy sequence in which both Luisa and Carla reconcile and become a part of Guido’s harem, consisting of every single woman who has made an impression on him in his life – from his childhood nanny to Saranghina, a prostitute he would visit in his youth, to Claudia, the actress to play the ‘ideal woman’ in his film.

 

They nurture him, bathe him, wrap him in towels and carry him like a child; Guido is their Solomon who decides who’s to stay with him and who’s to be sent ‘upstairs’. Jaqueline Bonbon, a 26 year old showgirl, locked by the women in the basement for refusing to stay upstairs, enters the scene and begs Guido to keep her with him. He refuses to change his decision and coldly commands her to go away; she encourages the other ladies to fight for her. Soon, there is revolt among the woman until Guido brings a whiplash and tames them into silence. Jaqueline is then taken upstairs by two middle-aged women after a final (sloppy) performance. Luisa continues with her household duties like a traditional, obedient and unquestioning household wife.

 

Back to reality, his life is in shambles. He has a critic by his corner to list out his flaws and his crew and reporters to question him when he shall resume working on his film; Rosetta tells him he has a childlike impulse while Luisa constantly denounces him for his self-indulgence. Yet he finds ways to evade them and escape to his past memories or fantasies or to his mistress Carla, who is married herself. Carla reminds us of Saranghina, with her garish dressing sense, her thick angled eyebrows, her curvy figure and her (in Fellini’s own words) big fat a$$ (when Saranghina enters to perform her iconic rumba number for little Guido and his friends, it’s her voluptuous backside we see first jingling in close-up – a treat). One day, when Carla and Luisa land up in a spa town at the same time, Guido ignores his mistress, telling Luisa that ‘he wouldn’t associate himself with such women’. He can’t even lie convincingly, and his wife scolds him further for sharing everything about their marriage with ‘that whore’. Guido’s innermost desire is to tell the truth without hurting anybody, but he can’t seem to do that, which results in a web of lies and failing relationships. Fellini seems to compare Luisa with Guido’s mother in the sense that both women are forlorn and neglected; there are also similarities in the treatment of Luisa and Emma, the protagonist’s fiancé in La Dolce Vita. The protagonists in both films, drawn by lust, neglect the responsibilities fundamental to love and marriage.

 

Guido’s script is critiqued as ‘a series of gratuitous episodes’ with ‘rough, incomplete characters’ among other things by critic-collaborator Carini Daumier. Moments before the screen test, he begins ranting again about the shortcomings of his film. In a humorous fantasy sequence, two men come in and hang the fellow on Guido’s instructions; this kind of wicked fantasy has also been used in Peter Jackson’s fantastic 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures. The critic here acts as an externalized form of Guido’s rationality counterproductive to the development of his imagination. He may abhor the critic and yet he keeps him by his side, unlike the French actress Madeleine who gets a cold shoulder from him whenever she asking him about her character. The producer is a cash cow who knows nothing about the film and yet shells out eighty million to construct the giant space craft set-piece. The mighty crew waits eagerly and optimistically for him to start. The film’s a chaotic circus and Fellini doesn’t make Guido the ringmaster until after climax. He shoots a number of sequences that look like processions of a cult, such as the one at the spa sequence in which Guido seeks the priest about happiness; the priest, unclothed and meek, repeats thrice that there is no salvation outside church. When he meets his muse actress Claudia in the end, she speaks the most important line about Guido, also repeating it thrice: that he doesn’t know how to love. Amen – truer words than those preached by the priest.

Fellini fluidly merges the three worlds of past, present and fantasy without creating any difficulties for us to distinguish between them. One of the most beautiful moments comes after a magical show when the magician correctly reads the words in Guido’s mind. The words ‘Asa Nisi Masa’, a gibberish word that subliminally contains the word ‘Anima’ meaning ‘soul’ takes us to Guido’s childhood, where were see him and the other children getting bathed and then taken to bed by their mother and nanny. The effect is heightened by Nino Rota’s dreamy, hypnotic background score. Fellini also loves swirling his camera around extras, who appear in the foreground, in each new scene before cutting to the protagonist so that the mood of the situation is captured. I took a delight noticing every Fellini moment pointed out by Roger Ebert in his review of the film. The lack of a formalized structure helps in allowing the film to flow undulated without inserting a jarring interruption only to satisfy the dictates of structure. This film has been compared to Ulysses, but I would say it echoes much of James Joyce’s previous novel Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man too, especially when Fellini takes us to instances from his childhood. While Joyce was credited for fore-grounding the process of thinking in his writings, Fellini should be revered for fore-grounding his thinking through images. The way the images in his mind seem to have been perfectly translated to screen, which is what makes this work so fascinating and intriguing. And he has found a perfect vessel in actor Marcello Mastroianni to humanize his thoughts, ideas, conflicts and understanding on life, love and work.
A Masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

 

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